Confronting the “Straight State”

George Severs

This week at the Gender and Sexuality History Workshop we were delighted to hear from Stephen Colbrook, an MPhil student in American History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Stephen treated us to a taste of his dissertation, talking us through the interesting case of California’s state response to its HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.

That California was used as a case study is in some ways unsurprising. San Francisco was something of an epicentre of the epidemic on the West Coast during this period. LGBTQ+ had long been coming to California, and San Francisco in particular, seeking refuge within the diverse queer communities which had flourished there since the postwar period. When the epidemic began in earnest in Britain, LGBTQ+ community leaders involved in coordinating HIV/AIDS groups often travelled to California in order to learn how to most effectively organise in the face of such a terrifying and unknown virus.

Colbrook shed interesting light on the State’s response to HIV/AIDS. California, for example, spent more state dollars on the fight against AIDS than any other state, including New York. But his main contribution in this paper, and his MPhil, is to foreground the gay male policymakers of California’s state responses to the virus. Based on a series of oral history interviews and archival work on the various bills, executive orders and policies which were passed during the late-twentieth century, Colbrook problematised the often overly simplistic binary image of queer activists versus the ‘straight state’.

A central part of his argument, though, is the role played by these gay state policymakers in the process of ‘de-gaying’ AIDS. ‘De-gaying’ in this sense meant attempting to publicly disassociate HIV/AIDS with gay men, in so doing associating the virus as a threat to the wider heterosexual population, in an attempt to get straight legislators to meaningfully respond.Screenshot 2019-02-06 at 10.29.57

The ‘de-gaying’ of AIDS is an historical phenomenon which historians of the epidemic in Britain will be familiar with. Virginia Berridge wrote about this process, occurring in the UK during the 1990s, in her landmark 1996 book AIDS in the UK. Indeed, Colbrook’s paper seemed to be in productive dialogue with Berridge’s work throughout its analysis, despite their difference in geographic areas of analysis. At the heart of both their work is the desire to bring policymakers into historical consideration – to discuss how it was that policy was formed, by whom and why. The question of ‘by whom’ is one that preoccupies Colbrook. By giving us a more detailed picture of the personal makeup of California’s ‘policy community’ to use Berridge’s phrase, we start to get a more nuanced picture of the ways in which the state, lobbyists and activists across the spectrum were interacting with one another. There are, I think, other players who may emerge in this picture, pharmaceutical companies not least amongst them. But the work of nuancing the history of California’s policy community to show that the ‘straight state’ was not, in one sense, homogenous, is useful.

It also subconsciously picks up Berridge’s call for a subtler oral history approach, which does not approach the history of HIV/AIDS as a ‘history from below’ as standard. Interviewing policymakers who, whilst fitting into certain categories of ‘elite interviewees’, were not the major political actors in California’s state response to the epidemic, gleans a more accurate picture of the multifaceted power and personal dynamics which were at play during this period (and that are at play in all forms of policy history). Foregrounding the gay policymakers who were working to ‘de-gay’ the epidemic in this local history of the virus is resulting in interesting results, and we at the Workshop look forward to hearing about how this work progresses.

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